A Jack Haldean Mystery, Dolores Gordon-Smith, Author
Severn, $28.95 (240p) ISBN 978-0-7278-8541-8
The Sussex village of Croxton Ferriers, the setting for Gordon-Smith's stellar ninth mystery set in post-WWI England (after 2014's After the Exhibition), is rocked to its core when a badly mutilated body turns up in the local church. One of the two women who discovered the remains in a cupboard is Isabelle Stanton, a cousin of amateur sleuth Jack Haldean, a fighter pilot during the war who soon gets on the case. The other is Isabelle's friend, strikingly beautiful Sue Castradon, whose husband, Ned, was badly disfigured in the war and who bears grudges against everyone in general but one person in particular: Sir Matthew Vardon, a greedy, scurrilous old rascal, whose son, Simon, is smitten with Sue. A chess piece left in the church cupboard may be a vital clue. Plausible red herrings abound as Jack and the village residents ponder the case and all its incongruities over tea in the drawing rooms of Croxton Ferriers. Some readers will stay up all night to finish this fine traditional mystery.
Fans of Golden Age grande dames Christie, Allingham, and Sayers will delight in this quintessentially British murder mystery, set in 1920s England and featuring a wealth of suspects and motives, and enough twists to keep even seasoned readers guessing. When the badly mutilated body of a man is found in a church in the tiny village of Croxton Ferriers, Major Jack Haldean is called in to assist the local police in finding the killer. Not only does the dashing Haldean have previous experience in such cases, but it was his cousin Isabelle who discovered the body. The most baffling and chilling aspect of the case is the black chess piece found beside the body. Haldean is still puzzling over what the chess piece means-what message is the killer trying to deliver?-when another body turns up, with a second chess piece beside it. Understanding that he has no time to lose and that the killer is devilishly clever, Haldean finally unearths both the motive and the shocking truth about the killer's identity. For readers who complain that nobody writes like Dame Agatha anymore.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
How far would you go for the promise of gold? Many years previously, three friends visited South America together, forming a joint venture. Now, gold beckons and the Vardons are eager to get the shares before the others realise their worth.
Lord Vardon dies in a sudden turn of ill health. A poison pen letter is found by his wife, suggesting murder. A man with many enemies never dies easy - and he is only the first. Sue Castradon and Isabelle Stanton discover a hideously mutilated body in the hall of the church, a chess piece at its side. As the Chessman's kills mount, suspicion falls on Ned Castradon, quick tempered and possessing 1/3 of the company shares. At the insistence of his friends, the Stantons, Jack Haldean assists in the investigation.
In the 1920s, forensic science wasn't what it is today. Jack Haldean and the police not only have to uncover the killer, they have to discover the identity of the bodies. To the reader, it is obvious that Castradon isn't the killer, there are simply too many clues pointing to him. The challenge is to discover the real killer when there is little physical evidence. Further without being certain of the victim, motive cannot be determined. Thus the case facing Haldean is a challenging one.
Fans of historical mysteries will enjoy this clever, character driven novel.
This book is the ninth in the series of Jack Haldean murder mysteries. They are period pieces, set in 1920s England. The hero is a mystery writer who sometimes consults with local police or Scotland yard to solve real-life murders. He has a game leg resulting from his service in World War I, or rather as it was known then, the Great War. And in this book, at least, he is revealed to have a cousin who lives in the quaint village of Croxton Ferriers, where a man's body is found gruesomely murdered, wrapped in a carpet with a bouquet of lilies and stuffed into a cupboard in the vestry of the local church.
The circumstances of the murder suggest two things about the killer: first, that he is a dangerous lunatic; and second, that he is a local bloke who knows his way around the village, and particularly, his way into the normally locked church. Called in by his cousin to aid Inspector Ashley, Jack sniffs out a pool of suspects that narrows rapidly from everyone in town to three or four men - really only two, when it comes to brass tacks - but as bodies continue to drop and suspicion on the likeliest suspects continues to be thwarted by iron-clad alibis, a solution remains elusive.
The killer definitely shows signs of being deranged, sending taunting letters to his victims before their deaths identifying himself as the Chessman and leaving pieces from an expensive chess set at the scene of each crime. Hanging the murders around the neck of the right man is difficult when the identity of a couple of the victims is in question and when the prime suspect's whereabouts at the time of each murder may or may not prove whether he could have done it. Connected with the murders is a set of mining shares that have suddenly become worth a lot of money, the heart of a beautiful but unhappily married woman, the uncontrolled rage of a man maimed in the war, another man's desperation to hide his disgraceful war record, the death of a blackmailer who conspired to steal his own wife's diamonds, the criminal affairs of a chauffeur who happens to be his boss's illegitimate son, and lots of problems with drug addiction.
I thought this was a brilliantly structured whodunit, featuring a series of murders that took on entirely different aspects as the apparent motives changed, and a sleuth who puts himself in terrible danger more than once to solve the crime. Maybe I'm brilliant too, because I actually guessed how it was all going to work out long before it occurred to the sleuths, but my guess wouldn't have been worth anything without the evidence they uncovered. I could definitely see myself going back to the beginning and reading this whole series straight through from book 1, which is A Fete Worse Than Death.
I have really become a fan of these Jack Haldean mystery novels written by Dolores Gordon-Smith. She has a wonderful talent with plotting a mystery that will keep you puzzled right up until she reveals all. This one had a twist followed by a swerve. These novels are set in the 1920s following the ending of World War I and that conflict always plays a large part in the attitudes and psychological balance (or not) of various characters. This one is set in the small village of Croxton Ferriers in Sussex and our amateur sleuth, Jack Haldean, is allowed to help the police in their investigations. In fact, they rather insist on it.
When two ladies go into the church to prepare the flowers for the coming Sunday services they make a grisly discovery. But who is the person they found murdered and how did anyone get into the locked church to hide his body in the first place? This story features anonymous threatening letters and tokens left at each crime scene as communications from the murderer. In a village this small, how has this obvious lunatic remained hidden?
I like the comfy, old-fashioned feeling of this series of novels which still seem to give the mystery lovers among us enough dead bodies to satisfy our chance to show off our own solving skills. I'm not positive, but I think this is probably book #9 in the series. If you want to begin reading them right here, go ahead. You will find all the backstory for the repeat characters you need to feel right at home immediately. Highly recommended for readers of the older style of mysteries.
Donna Fletcher Crow, The Monastery Murders
As self-appointed president of the Jack Haldean fan club, I'm delighted to report that The Chessman is Jack's best case ever. Jack's charming cousin Isabelle is on hand when a body is discovered in a church cupboard in a quiet Sussex village- decorated with lilies from the vicarage garden.
The questions and suspects multiply almost as fast as the body count. But everyone seems to have a solid alibi. At one point I was reduced to asking myself if the vicar could have done it.
On top of this the reader is treated to interesting historical insights into life in England following the Great War, including a few flashbacks to battlefield scenes. You can count on Gordon-Smith to get her details right- especially when it comes to vintage cars.
Dolores Gordon-Smith is a mystery writer in the classic style of the Golden Age writers on whom she is an expert. Indeed, one can picture Smith as Agatha Christie munching away on her bag of apples as she concocts another baffling plot twist.
In the end, though, Jack unravels all the knots to bring about a particularly satisfying ending. I can't wait for his next adventure.
BY NICOLE · PUBLISHED AUGUST 29, 2015 · UPDATED JULY 12, 2016
The Chessman is the ninth book in the Jack Haldean Mystery series. Set in the 1920s, Jack, a detective novelist, is called in to help solve a murder case involving a body, a church, and a ton of lilies. When one murder spawns into many more, each marked with a chess piece, Jack must track down the serial killer before all his pieces are wiped off the board.
I was turned on to The Chessman by a post on Hogwarts Professor by John Granger. He recommended the book and announced that review copies were available. Trusting Granger's taste in books implicitly, I jumped at the opportunity. When I received the book, I didn't even bother reading the back cover or anything in the title past "The Chessman," so it took me a few pages to realize I was in the 1920s. And I didn't discover The Chessman is Book 9 until after I had finished reading. I say this because if you are wondering if this is a series where you have to start at Book 1 in order not to be lost, you don't.
The characters and world of the story are richly portrayed. And the plot kept me engaged throughout the story. I never reached a point where, other than having to put the book down for basic necessities of life, I felt like I could step away from the story with ease. Most of the time I cooked breakfast with one hand and held my Kindle up with the other. My husband and I were grocery shopping, and he had to ask me to put the book down while we walked through the parking lot so, you know, I didn't get hit by a car or anything.
If you are looking for a good mystery with an unpredictable, at least in my case, ending, I strongly recommend The Chessman. Not only is the mystery engaging, but the world is also inviting (other than the whole serial-killer-on-the-loose thing), and the characters are lovable.
Small disclaimer to my cozy-mystery friends. While the murders themselves are gruesome, most are portrayed "off camera." I didn't find the descriptions to be overly bloody in detail, but know your own sensitivity going in. The Chessman is by no means a "thriller" in the blood and guts sense. It is mostly a detective novel with the characters trying to get to the bottom of the case.
A great read!
Thank you to Seven House for providing a free review copy.
You can also listen to Dolores Gordon-Smith chat about the Cormoran Strike series on MuggleNet Academia.
It is a Friday during 1925 in the very quiet, Sussex village of Croxton Ferriers and a couple of local ladies, Isabelle Stanton and Sue Castradon have gone to the Church to change the flowers on the altar. As the fresh ones need different sized vases they entered the vestry to fetch them. Puzzled by a strange musty smell there, they opened this large cupboard and were horrified to discover on the shelf next to the vases, a naked corpse, wrapped in a tartan rug. This male corpse had been made unrecognisable by the mutilation of the head and removal of hands and feet.
Arthur Stanton, husband of Isabelle knows that the local village Policeman would not be experienced enough to deal with this crime so he telephones an old friend Detective Superintendent Ashley of the Sussex Police who agrees to come. D.S. Ashley asks for Major Jack Haldean, former Royal Flying Corps hero and present day crime novelist for his help, as as an amateur detective he has been involved in solving several previous murder incidents.
Major Jack Haldean, finds in the cupboard where the body had been located, a black marble chess knight with crystal eyes. Soon several notable villagers are receiving typed letters with messages to the effect that their deaths are imminent and the letters are signed "The Chessman".
The day before Sue Castradon had entered the church and discovered the corpse, her solicitor husband Ned had had a violent argument with Jonathan Ryle a drunken chauffeur of a local V.I.P. Sir Matthew Vardon, which had been broken up by the local vicar and this event was a hot topic of gossip in the Croxton Ferriers tea-rooms.
The clues follow one another with astonishing speed and I found the story immensely exciting and very fast moving and the pages just shot by. The story is peopled with a very interesting mix of authentic, well described characters. It was very atmospheric and expertly researched giving a real glimpse of life in a Sussex village and the wider country in the 1920s.
There are a few red herrings to draw the reader up the wrong path before the dramatic and gripping conclusion is reached. I was really flummoxed before I reached the end of this book as to how it would end and of course I got it everything wrong I'm pleased to say. I read for review her previous book After The Exhibition, the eighth in Jack Haldean series and was so impressed with that book I was very pleased to have this one to review as well. Well Recommended.
The latest installment of Dolores Gordon-Smith's Jack Haldean murder mysteries, 'The Chessman,' is a worthy addition to a remarkable series in which there has yet to be a disappointment. Ms Gordon-Smith's grasp of the Golden Age village mystery novel a la Christie and VanDyke and company is so firm that her characters become ever more credible yet Dickensesque, her plots that much more difficult to see through yet so fairly done that the reader cannot believe s/he didn't guess what was happening, and the action leading to the final confrontation so harrowing and engaging that the pages turn, sleep is forgotten, and life responsibilities are suspended until all is set right in the denouement.
Without spoiling the specific twists and turns that make 'The Chessman' work so well, I feel obliged to note that the author's Sussex countryside descriptions, her account of village life, the notes of the shadow everyone still feels of the Great War and of uncertainty in its wake, and her command of the technology of the time -- the cars, the telephone, telegraph stations, auto repair, etc. -- are as good and, as often, even better than her previous work. Jack Haldean, his country cousin, and the gendarmes, local and in London, are at their usual best, which is to say, none of the cartoonish foils or allegorical caricatures that often mar the tales told by Conan Doyle, his impersonators, and even Dame Agatha.
'The Chessman' will be enjoyed by fans of Dorothy Sayers -- and as either a stand-alone piece or as another volume in a winning series.
Highly recommended. No reservations. Five Stars.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
Sir Matthew Vardon was an unpleasant man. We meet him extorting some shares from a drug addict. Successful, he leaves the desperate young man with a syringe full of a potentially lethal dose… When next we meet him, however, it is at his own funeral. He died of apparent apoplexy - but a note is found in his effects: "I AM KILLING YOU SLOWLY. YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. THE CHESSMAN"
Days later, Isabelle Stanton and Sue Castradon are arranging the flowers in the church. But it's not just flowers they find in a cupboard. It's a body, with the hands and feet removed and the face battered beyond all recognition. And next to the body - an ornate chess-piece…
It seems that the Chessman has a plan - well, a hit-list at least. But in the meantime, Isabelle Stanton has contacted her brother - the writer-cum-amateur detective Jack Haldean. But he'll have to move fast to stop the death count from rising even further…
So, back to Dolores Gordon-Smith's Jack Haldean series, first visited um… five reviews ago. It was while reading that one that I spotted the latest available for review on Netgalley. As I was enjoying the first one, I thought I'd sample the latest in the series. And I'm really glad I did.
Very much written in the Golden Age style, this was an absolute treat. Jack Haldean is an affable lead - no obvious quirks apart from a dodgy leg - and there's a pleasing array of suspects, although for large parts of the narrative, the reader won't know which direction to look in.
The serial killer idea is rather hard to marry to the whodunit format. I can think of one obvious success, The ABC Murders, (actually two, although I've rarely seen And Then There Were None referred to in that way) but others generally don't pull it off so well - one problem is that with a cast of suspects, the victims tend to be anonymous which makes a motive hard to establish. If the killer instead works on the main cast, then it's usually easy to spot the killer as the book progresses. It takes a clever plot to make you care about the victims and still get blind-sided by the identity of the villain.
Talking of the characters, there's a lovely variety of characters on display - none of the two-dimensional stereotypes that often populated the books from the era that is being emulated here. There are only a few Golden Age books I can think of where I found myself caring as much about some of the characters as much as I did here - the final few pages in particular were lovely.
This book has a clever plot. Even an old dog like me had a couple of theories - all I'll say is that they were both half-right and half-wrong. If I'd put them together in the right way… but no, I was fooled. It's a clever game that the author plays here and I absolutely loved it.
Go pester your library to order a copy of it now. It's an absolute cracker. Highly Recommended.
Rating: 5 out of 5 stars
This is the latest book in the Jack Haldean 1920s mystery series. It is every bit as good as its predecessors and I read it in less than twenty four hours. A mutilated body is found in a cupboard in a village church - close to the home of Jack's cousin Isabelle. The face is disfigured and the hands have been cut off to prevent easy identification.
At first everyone thinks there is only one person it can be and there are certainly plenty of people who might have wished that person dead. A local landowner has recently died and there have been rumours that his death was not a natural one and fingers have been pointed at the local doctor. Various people have been receiving sinister letters signed by 'The Chessman' and the investigating officer Inspector Ashley calls in Jack Haldean who has no objection to staying with his cousin and getting involved it what promises to be an interesting case.
I found this engrossing and entertaining reading with a well-constructed plot with plenty of twists and turns to it which kept me guessing almost to the last page. I liked the characters and thought they were believable and interesting and Jack himself is, as always, good value.
If you like crime stories with an historical setting without too much on the page violence then this may be one for you though the body count in this one is on the high side. The book can be read as a standalone mystery or as part of the series.
After the Exhibition
Reviewed by Terry Halligan.
I was absolutely gripped and excited by this very well written and deftly plotted mystery set in London during the years 1924-5. The author, Dolores Gordon-Smith,has written seven other novels in this series and I was so knocked out by it I have bought the first and may buy the others as well!
Major Jack Haldean an author of crime novels and an amateur detective, with his friend Scotland Yard detective Bill Rackham attends Lythewell and Askerns' exhibition of church art in Lyon House, London, which is expected to be a sedate affair. After all, Lythewell and Askern, Church Artists, are a respectable, old-fashioned firm, the last people to be associated with mystery, violence and sudden death. However, whilst they consider the exhibition rather boring and whilst they are waiting after the exhibition, a seller of flags for a charity appeal suddenly collapses. Later, their friend Betty Wingate, who is connected to the organisers of the exhibition is very surprised by her experience of a vanishing corpse and she tells Jack, who is also intrigued by it all; this all leads to a fascinating story which once started I just could not put down. The clues follow one another with astonishing rapidity and I found the story immensely gripping and fast moving and the pages just shot by. The story is peopled with a very interesting and rich cast of authentic, well described characters. It was very atmospheric and expertly researched giving a real glimpse of life in London and the wider country in the 1920s.
There are a few red herrings to draw the reader up the wrong road before the dramatic and very exciting conclusion is reached. I was really stumped before I reached the end of this book as to how it would end and of course I got it all wrong I'm pleased to say.
I'm very attracted to stories set during the 'Golden Age' of detective fiction and I see that this author is influenced by writers that I already admire such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L Sayers and PG Wodehouse and having another writer of really gripping stories set during this time is excellent news. I will certainly look out for stories by this very exciting author and I'm pleased that I have already another seven to buy.
Reading the Past
Dolores Gordon-Smith's After the Exhibition, a mystery of art, blackmail, and secrets
Set in England in the mid-1920s, this complicated maze of a mystery is full of promising leads, frustrating dead ends, and puzzles wrapped in puzzles. It has the most eventful plot I've seen for a novel of its length. To use a period metaphor, at times it feels like a phonograph record played at double the proper speed.
To her credit, though, the author carefully tracks every little strand of the plot and ties the threads up tidily in the end. After finishing, I skimmed through the novel again, noticing on a second time around how well the clues had been laid.
Keeping true to form for a traditional British mystery, the village of Whimbrell Heath in Surrey is populated by eccentric characters - whose personalities, it must be said, outshine the series detectives. Who are: Major Jack Haldean, a famous crime writer, and his friend Bill Rackham, Chief Inspector at Scotland Yard. They stumble upon odd happenings in London while attending an exhibition of church art, an event one would expect to be rather calm and dull. Not so much.
Employees of Lythewell and Askern, a firm specializing in ecclesiastical artwork and furnishings, have traveled up from Whimbrell Heath to participate. Bill's an old wartime buddy of Colin Askern, son of one of the owners, while Jack finds himself more intrigued by attractive Betty Wingate, Colin's friend and Lythewell's niece.
When a woman selling flags for charity passes out in shock on the street, crying out "Art!", they help her and write it off as a peculiar event. Then things turn even stranger. The next day, when Betty approaches Bill and Jack, claiming that an Italian lady was murdered in her cottage back home, they're compelled to investigate. Betty's upset, since Colin and other villagers dismiss her as hysterical: the body she saw has vanished.
Jack and Bill make a good team, and their easygoing banter livens things up, though more backstory - this is the 8th in the series - would have helped me know them better. But with revelations of blackmail, jealousy, overlarge egos, and rumors of hidden treasure, there was more than enough to hold my attention as one stunning revelation after another came to light.
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